Bill proposes state change to district attorney system

Wednesday, March 6, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Only Texas and Kentucky have more elected local prosecuting attorneys than Missouri's 115. But having so many elected prosecutors is hampering rather than helping the pursuit of justice in the state, say supporters of reducing that number.

A bill before the Senate would allow counties to do away with their own prosecutors in favor of elected district attorneys, one for each of Missouri's 45 judicial circuits.

Proponents testifying for the change Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee said it would improve professionalism and competency among prosecutors and allow for more efficient and equitable funding of prosecutor's offices throughout Missouri.

"I think this bill would be a great benefit to the citizens of Missouri because it puts a full-time prosecutor in each circuit," said the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, Robert P. McCullough.

At present, all 114 Missouri counties plus St. Louis city have elected prosecutors. While it is a full-time position in some counties, McCullough said 80 percent of county prosecutors are part-time, particularly in rural counties.

McCullough said sometimes it is difficult to find lawyers willing to give up a full-time private practice to serve in a part-time capacity. McCullough said no one ran for prosecutor in 11 counties in 1994, forcing the governor to fill the posts through appointments.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, would allow county commissions to opt into the district attorney system. The first district attorneys would be elected in November 2006 and begin four-year terms on Jan. 1, 2007.

State employees

Each district attorney would be a state employee earning the same salary as a circuit court judge, currently $108,000. Salaries vary for county prosecutors, but in most cases are far less than the proposed amount.

While circuit courts and the public defender system are state funded, prosecution operations are paid for by local counties, creating haves and have nots.

Under Caskey's bill, state funding for district attorney offices would be phased in until the state covered 50 percent of costs. Because the measure would have no fiscal impact on the state in the next three years, the bill's cost hasn't been estimated.

District attorneys would be empowered to hire full- and part-time assistants, based on appropriations from county commissions within the circuit.

While a handful of judicial circuits include only one county, some have as many as five counties.

Counties have choice

All counties in a circuit wouldn't have to join the district attorney system for it to be implemented. For example, in the three-county 32nd Judicial Circuit, Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties could choose to have a district attorney while Perry County could continued with its own prosecutor.

Although there are a few opponents, McCullough said most county prosecutors support the change and named Stephen P. Sokoloff in Dunklin County and H. Riley Bock in New Madrid County among that number.

In an interview, Sokoloff said although officially he is a part-time prosecutor, handling 800 to 900 felony cases a year, he definitely puts in full-time hours on the job while also trying to maintain a private civil practice to make a living.

"The system as it exists now certainly discourages serious, professional career prosecutors," Sokoloff said.

Many local prosecutors lack the resources needed to effectively prosecute major cases, Sokoloff said. At the same time, the state public defender system provides ample resources for those standing trial for serious crimes.

"With a district attorney system it would enable us to pool resources more effectively and develop more professionalism within the ranks," Sokoloff said.

The statute creating county prosecutors was enacted in 1873 and is outdated, Bock said.

"The system has become unbalanced to the point that, in my belief, where you commit a crime has an impact on your prosecution," Bock said.

Having state-employed district attorneys wouldn't be unprecedented in Missouri, Bock said. Prior to the 1873 law, a similar system was in place but was changed due to Reconstruction-era concerns about local control. Bock said the current bill would provide a fair trade-off, maintaining sufficient local autonomy in exchange for better funding.

No one testified in opposition to the bill, and the committee took no action.

The bill is SB 1193.

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